Overcrowded Grace Hospital emergency room ‘to breaking point’, nurse says

When Jan Wynn learned that her father, a patient at Winnipeg’s Grace Hospital, was being moved from a treatment area, she was thrilled.

But when she didn’t hear an update for a while, she went straight to a desk in the emergency department.

“Turns out I walked right past him and didn’t even see him because he was right there in the hallway,” Wynn recalled.

The medical staff said: “‘It’s not ideal, it’s not good – he’s in the hallway.'”

While the pandemic isn’t straining hospitals as much as it used to, Winnipeg’s health care system’s diagnosis is troubling and, in some cases, getting worse. Wait times increased in March at all hospitalspatients wait in emergency rooms for days for an inpatient bed and chronic staff shortages are widespread.

Hallways lined with patients

Grace Hospital was particularly challenged. At any one time, up to 20 patients are waiting in the hallway, said an emergency room nurse, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“There are no call bells on the walls. There is no oxygen on the walls over there,” the nurse said.

“It’s not a suitable place for them.”

Patients have to be kept in the hallway as the emergency department, suitable for 31 beds, sometimes treats up to 90 patients at a time. There are more than 80 patients in the emergency room several times a week, the nurse said.

And severe staffing shortages don’t help.

Over the past few weeks, executives at the Grace have “been hanging on to anything” to fill vacancies, the nurse said. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) – which operates Grace and several other hospitals in the city – has asked public health nurses to take shifts in the emergency room “potentially for several weeks”.

A leaked schedule shows that only two to four nurses were on staff in the unit on some nights, while 10 or 11 nurses worked day shifts.

Over the past six months, the nurse is aware of at least nine co-workers who left Grace ER exhausted and frustrated by mandatory overtime.

The same nurse noticed an increase in the number of very sick patients arriving at the hospital. These issues, coupled with staffing issues, have overwhelmed the emergency department.

“Emergency services are supposed to be used to [a patient] from; you get everything you need, then you are moved to intensive care or a ward so the rest of the care can be completed. So they’re healthy enough to go home and be rehabilitated.” they said.

Paramedics bring a patient to Grace Hospital. The health care facility, like many others, is dealing with a recent surge in patient admissions, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said. (Jason Empson)

“But when you have nowhere to move them, they end up stuck in the emergency room.

“It’s a lot of things rolled into one. It’s been smoldering for a long time, and it’s at breaking point, I think.”

A few of the wards that should be taking emergency patients have closed due to a lack of staff, the nurse said. “There’s nowhere to ship them.”

As many as 90 patients are being treated in the emergency department at Grace Hospital, which can accommodate 31 beds, the nurse said. The number of patients fluctuates between 80 and 85 people several times a week.

In late April, Jan Wynn’s 90-year-old father spent seven hours in this hallway.

While waiting with her dad, she insisted on pulling out a chair and snuggling up as close to her dad’s hallway bed as possible whenever someone walked past.

She knew she was taking up space, but Wynn felt she needed to be there.

“I didn’t want anyone to forget he was there,” Wynn said.

Plea for her father’s care

“I didn’t want to yell at anyone, get angry or be obnoxious, but I wanted to make sure people knew I was there. Is that going on?”

She remembers another patient who didn’t have the strength to shout that he needed water. Hearing her silent pleas, Wynn called a nurse on her behalf.

“It’s just a really sad place, and I’m not allowed to help anyone because of COVID or whatever. I couldn’t offer anyone a cup of coffee or water.” Wyn said.

NDP health spokesperson Uzoma Asagwara said it was disheartening to hear the strains Wynn had to endure.

“It certainly raises concerns that if she wasn’t there, what would have happened? What about the many people who are in emergency rooms or urgent care and who don’t don’t have a loved one there to champion their case?” Asagwara said.

“His experience is not what Manitobans should have when accessing emergency rooms in our province.”

As hospitals crumble, NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara fears patients are not getting the care they need. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Asagwara has been hearing about staffing shortages for many months. The Union Station MP said the government was entirely to blame for not acting quickly enough before vacancies became a crisis.

A provincial spokesperson has called the health care of Manitobans the government’s top priority.

The WRHA said in a statement that such problems at Grace, and elsewhere, stem from an increase in patient numbers. “This is an ongoing problem that did not develop overnight, and we are committed to addressing the situation and ensuring safe and effective care for all who need it.”

The health authority said it was working on a number of initiatives to improve patient flow, such as allocating patient volumes across city hospitals.

Wynn, who has applauded healthcare workers for their hard work, chose to speak after reading a news report in which Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon described moving patients through hallways and staff lounges as short term.

“They try to reassure the public that everything is fine. And what I saw during my little stay, it’s not OK.”

Since then, her dad has spent the last week at St. Boniface Hospital and Wynn said it was a great experience.